THE BLOG
06/18/2010 10:00 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Reporters Made Their (Em)Bed, But Don't Want to Lie In It

So reporters are hopping mad because they aren't getting access to areas damaged by the BP oil spill catastrophe? Well honestly, to a great extent they have only themselves to blame.

At the start of the Iraq war, reporters sold their souls for access, showing powers-that-be just how easy it is to control the media. The "embed" programs that began in Iraq in 2002 and 2003 set a precedent. And what was once a novel idea is becoming standard operating procedure for businesses and government. In this case, for a government that's apparently been capture by big business.

What we are seeing now with the BP catastrophe is an emerging pattern:

  • extensive questioning before "qualified" (i.e., friendly) media is GRANTED access (NYTimes)
  • access to the talking points of those in authority but no freedom to find sources independently (PBS Newshour)
  • private business (i.e., culprits) hassling unsanctioned reporting (ABC News)
  • government officials stonewalling and threatening to arrest media on behalf of the culprits (CBS News)
  • government sitting on key data, or deferring data collection to the inept efforts of the culprits (ProPublica)

For military embeds now, a shady and very powerful public relations agency with close ties to the military -- the Rendon Group -- has taken over screening media applications for embeds.

You Let the Fox Into Your Henhouse

Why do BP and the government think they can get away with this sort of thing? Because you led them to believe they could. Journalists now even glamorize the embed and wear it like a badge of honor. As if the official sanction is a validation of their integrity, like CNN did just last week, saying:

"Editor's note: During an exclusive 48-hour embed with Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, CNN's Kyra Phillips gained access to Development Driller III." (link)

This editor's note begs a question: Why the hell did she need an "exclusive embed" to get access to that drilling rig?

Every journalist in the nation should have access to that rig. The Coast Guard should be running shuttle boats out there for pool reporters. There should be daily updates by the Coast Guard and independent oil industry experts on progress at the rig, broadcast live via satellite.

Yet at every turn, what should be open and straightforward is hidden or tightly controlled. And every time a reporter participates in an embed, it emboldens the culprits and their defenders, because you officially grant them an entitlement to "manage media access."

You Were Warned

Back when all this embed business started, critics were skeptical that it set a bad precedent, and they were right. Studies of reporting by embedded reporters, published by the BBC and by the American Sociological Association, both show that embedded reporters tend to report more favorably on the agenda of their sponsors.

And now that powerful people and organizations know that this strategy works to control the story, do you really think they're going to go back to the old way without a fight?

Hell no. They're going to double down.

As someone who worked on the other side (in the PR business) for 20 years, I would say: You gave them an opening. Why are you surprised that they barged through, guns a-blazing, and now own more turf in the information war than they're entitled to?

The reality is that you should not be beholden to them. They should be answerable to you. But you ceded that position of authority, and now they are using it against you. And you should have no doubt in your minds when you look at the media clampdown in the Gulf that what you are looking at is your permanent future.

Unless you make a decisive win in this particular skirmish.

Break the Blockade!

Successful PR efforts hinge on consistency of message. If nothing disrupts the delivery of the message, or shows that message up as fraudulent, then they win.

If you really want to break the stranglehold on information, you need to disprove their argument that there isn't one. And nothing would pop that fictitious bubble faster than pictures of reporters being hauled away in handcuffs for trying to report the truth. Not that I am encouraging anyone to break the law.

But shame is the great equalizer. Right now they have none when it comes to stonewalling the press and the public. So, if you want to report the ENTIRE truth of this horrific disaster, then part of your job has to be to shame them into backing down. And civil disobedience is a long-established and respected alternative to being played for a fool - which, make no mistake, is exactly what they are doing to you.

They are counting on your acquiescence; your willingness to live under their thumb in exchange for access; your vanity in that you will use the halo of official sanction to promote yourself and your story; and your abdication of your rightful role as investigators and adversaries -- i.e., instruments of the public's right to know.

Are you going to continue to give it to them by just griping and complaining and pleading with them to let you through the blockades? Is this really what America's free press has come to?

Confront them damn it! For your pride. For your profession. And for a public that needs, and is owed the truth.

cross posted at LiteralMayhem.com